Tas­ma­nian salmon, from farm to court

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Claire Konkes

Tas­ma­nian salmon, from farm to court

At the Supreme Court of Tas­ma­nia in Ho­bart, a co­terie of suits wait in the foyer for the morn­ing’s pro­ceed­ings to start. It takes a mo­ment to spot the plain­tiff. Frances Ben­der, the plain-talk­ing mil­lion­aire salmon farmer, who wept on cam­era as she told the ABC’s Four Cor­ners last year that Tas­ma­nia’s salmon in­dus­try was in cri­sis, is sign­ing af­fi­davits at the clerk’s counter. On this crisp win­ter’s day, Ben­der is up to her eye­balls in three sep­a­rate le­gal chal­lenges: one in the Supreme Court and two in the Fed­eral Court. Ben­der’s com­pany, Huon Aqua­cul­ture, is seek­ing stronger reg­u­la­tion of marine farm­ing in the state, at both the fed­eral and state level. Can you think of another oc­ca­sion when a ma­jor pri­mary pro­ducer took a gov­ern­ment to court ar­gu­ing for bet­ter reg­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing tight­en­ing re­stric­tions to growth?

Tas­ma­nia’s salmon in­dus­try is worth about $700 mil­lion at the farm gate and em­ploys more than 2000 peo­ple, no­tably in re­gional ar­eas. Other than a hand­ful of smaller op­er­a­tors, three com­pa­nies, Tas­sal, Huon Aqua­cul­ture and Pe­tuna, dom­i­nate the in­dus­try with busi­ness mod­els stretched across hatch­eries, sea farm­ing and pro­cess­ing. Un­til re­cently, these three were on co-op­er­a­tive, though com­pet­i­tive, terms and en­joyed con­sid­er­able gov­ern­ment sup­port as ma­jor em­ploy­ers and am­bas­sadors for Brand Tas­ma­nia. But the busi­ness of farm­ing salmon is chang­ing and re­la­tions have soured. Ben­der is at the ful­crum, us­ing me­dia and the law to lever­age change.

Hav­ing signed the pa­per­work, she scans the foyer and spots a tall woman in a con­spic­u­ous faux-fur coat. Laura Kelly, strat­egy di­rec­tor of the non-profit group En­vi­ron­ment Tas­ma­nia, has just walked in. The two women em­brace and I am close enough to hear Ben­der tell Kelly, “I’m ex­hausted, ab­so­lutely ex­hausted. But this must be done.”

This sud­den ren­der­ing of emo­tion is a small, but ex­tra­or­di­nary, note in the tune of Tas­ma­nian en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics.

The state’s nat­u­ral re­sources and its pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion vot­ing sys­tem mean the en­vi­ron­ment has long been a fea­ture of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape. While the clichéd “jobs ver­sus the en­vi­ron­ment” ar­gu­ment still gets dusted off when con­tentious is­sues arise, es­pe­cially around elec­tion time, the old di­vide be­tween gree­nies and in­dus­try is not as neatly de­fined or eas­ily de­ployed these days.

In 2012, for in­stance, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists sat down with the log­ging in­dus­try to draw up a truce to end the “for­est wars”. (Al­though more re­cently the in­cum­bent Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has done its best to restart them; as Ben­der was sign­ing the pa­per­work in the Supreme Court, par­lia­ment across the road was knock­ing back leg­is­la­tion to re­open 365,000 hectares of for­est to log­ging.)

Also in 2012, Tas­ma­ni­ans faced the threat of the world’s sec­ond-largest fish­ing boat – “the su­per trawler” FV Mar­giris – head­ing into lo­cal wa­ters. A ver­i­ta­ble fleet of out­boards and larger craft owned by recre­ational fish­ers and boat­ing en­thu­si­asts, many from the con­ser­va­tive end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, joined en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists’ protest boats to make a po­lit­i­cal case for a fair go at fish­ing – and won. Now, an in­dus­try leader is rock­ing the boat.

The cases be­fore the courts to­day – we will head up to the Fed­eral Court this af­ter­noon – are full of le­gal ar­cana and par­tic­u­lars about aqua­cul­ture man­age­ment, but to sum­marise: Ben­der’s com­pany, Huon, is ac­cus­ing the Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment and the state’s En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Author­ity of not ad­e­quately or fairly man­ag­ing the ex­pan­sion of salmon farm­ing in Mac­quarie Har­bour. Huon al­leges that the gov­ern­ment’s en­thu­si­asm for ex­pand­ing the in­dus­try not only al­lowed the in­dus­try to grow too quickly but also led to de­ci­sions and con­ces­sions that favoured its ma­jor com­peti­tor, Tas­sal.

As the court de­lib­er­ates on whether Huon has any grounds for these ac­cu­sa­tions, I think about our fish tank at home. My daugh­ter started with a 50-litre tank, but her ap­ti­tude for re­search and the crash course in bio­chem­istry that aquar­i­ums re­quire soon led her to in­vest in a 130-litre tank. Not only can she fit more fish but the greater vol­ume – as­sum­ing she doesn’t over­stock – pro­vides a bet­ter mar­gin for er­ror if her bio­chem­istry goes awry. In the tank, clean wa­ter cas­cades from the fil­ter out­let, mak­ing bub­bles that oxy­genate the wa­ter. Fish farm­ers de­scribe this as wa­ter hav­ing “en­ergy”. In­vis­i­ble to the eye, “good” bac­te­ria cir­cu­late in the wa­ter, con­sum­ing the fish poo and rot­ting food waste and turn­ing them into var­i­ous com­pounds that even­tu­ally build up to toxic lev­els. In fish farm­ing, tides and cur­rents cy­cle the wa­ter; at home, we use a siphon and a bucket.

The tank can hold about 15 fish, de­pend­ing on their size. It’s tempt­ing to over­stock; a few more never seem to hurt. But, like much of an­i­mal hus­bandry, it’s about man­ag­ing the ac­cu­mu­lated waste. The more fish, the more waste and the more likely that things will get out of hand; a few less will keep the mar­gin for er­ror wider. “It’s your choice,” I’ve told her, as we stare at the pretty tetras flick­ing beneath the lights. “But you’ll be sad if they all get sick.”

Lis­ten­ing to the lawyers ar­gue for their clients, it might be easy to de­scribe Huon’s ac­tions as one cor­po­rate fish at­tack­ing another; that Ben­der’s pub­lic griev­ances and lit­i­ga­tion are a cyn­i­cal cor­po­rate move. But there is some­thing about Ben­der’s anger, and her de­ci­sion to go to court, that seems more than a com­mer­cial spat. For starters, when Ben­der crit­i­cised the salmon in­dus­try on Four Cor­ners, she was re­veal­ing her com­pany’s dirty laun­dry along with ev­ery­one else’s.

Salmon farm­ing was for decades a flag­ship of Tas­ma­nia’s “clean green” im­age but, in more re­cent years, the in­dus­try has come un­der scru­tiny: for its in­dus­trial-scale hatch­eries; its use of syn­thetic “pink” dyes to colour the fish and an­tibi­otics to com­bat bac­te­rial in­fec­tions; the rate of “morts” (dead fish); the shoot­ing and re­lo­ca­tion of Aus­tralian fur seals that raid the pens; and the in­cur­sion of fish farms in parts of Tas­ma­nia’s pop­u­lated, and pop­u­lar, coastal ar­eas. Huon is also the tar­get of some of this crit­i­cism, but Ben­der’s choice to ad­mit there are prob­lems, on na­tional tele­vi­sion and now be­fore the courts, is the kind of ex­po­sure not eas­ily dis­missed as gree­nie ide­ol­ogy. Hers was a loud and very pub­lic shout from in­side the tent that things are not go­ing well.

One way to look at the griev­ances be­tween the com­pa­nies is to glance at their roots and the cul­ture war at play. Tas­sal’s CEO, Mark Ryan, was the re­ceiver from ad­vi­sory and in­vest­ment firm Kor­daMen­tha who pulled Tas­sal from bank­ruptcy in 2002. A year later, his abil­ity to cut costs and re­turn Tas­sal to a prof­itable busi­ness was lauded in the coun­try’s busi­ness pages, with one story in the Age prais­ing his de­ci­sion to stop har­vest­ing im­ma­ture fish to cover debt. While Ryan comes from a cor­po­rate back­ground, Huon Aqua­cul­ture’s Peter and Frances Ben­der are a hus­band-and­wife team who started farm­ing from scratch in the 1980s and still de­scribe them­selves as farm­ers.

This is not just a story of how many fish can be put in a pen or how many pens can sit in a wa­ter­way be­fore the wa­ter­way and its fish get sick. The de­bate swirling around Tas­ma­nian salmon is a de­bate about choice: con­sumer choice gets a look-in be­cause, in these po­lit­i­cally cyn­i­cal and con­sumer­fo­cused times, po­lit­i­cal ac­tion is of­ten pack­aged as con­sumer choice. But mainly this story is about com­mer­cial de­ci­sion­mak­ing – and good gov­er­nance – that does not leave it to con­sumers to de­cide whether to knock back a nice piece of salmon be­cause the pol­i­tics failed to lis­ten to the science.

Mac­quarie Har­bour, on Tas­ma­nia’s west coast, is a deep har­bour with slate-dark wa­ters. The south­ern third lies within the Tas­ma­nian Wilder­ness World Her­itage Area. Two rivers – the King and the Gor­don – fill the har­bour like a bath while its nar­row open­ing, called Hell’s Gates, keeps the wild sea in check. Its size – six times that of Syd­ney’s har­bour – and rel­a­tive tran­quil­lity makes it ideal for fish farm­ing, but it has lim­i­ta­tions.

The tan­nin in the wa­ter lim­its the pen­e­tra­tion of sun­light and its still­ness leaves the wa­ter con­spic­u­ously strat­i­fied – with­out much tidal ac­tion, the fresh river wa­ter re­mains at the sur­face while the saltier wa­ter sinks to the bot­tom. This strat­i­fi­ca­tion can be good for fish health: fresh wa­ter can flush dis­eases from their gills. How­ever, the har­bour is also no­to­ri­ously low in the dis­solved oxy­gen that fish “breathe”. Low dis­solved oxy­gen in wa­ter is, for fish, like stuffy or pol­luted air; no dis­solved oxy­gen and they suf­fo­cate. Mac­quarie’s still, light-im­pov­er­ished wa­ters are not teem­ing with en­demic life – but Tas­sal, Huon and Pe­tuna all farm there.

In 2011, Tas­sal, Huon and Pe­tuna were pro­duc­ing 9000 tonnes of fish in the har­bour when they formed a group to work to­wards dou­bling pro­duc­tion by 2030. As the har­bour partly lies in a World Her­itage area and is the known habi­tat of at least one threat­ened species, the Maugean skate, ex­pan­sion was sub­ject to fed­eral ap­proval. Stud­ies at the time sug­gested the har­bour could sup­port about 29,500 tonnes of fish, but the fed­eral ap­proval capped this stock­ing rate at about half, or 15,000 tonnes, as a pre­cau­tion. Us­ing an “adap­tive man­age­ment prin­ci­ple” the com­pa­nies were to “scale up” slowly. The de­ci­sion to de­velop the in­dus­try brought the com­pa­nies to­gether; the speed at which Tas­sal in­creased its stock­ing rates would land them in court.

Un­der the man­age­ment plan, the com­pa­nies mon­i­tor the top and mid­dle sec­tions of the har­bour where the fish swirl in their pens, and Tas­ma­nia’s EPA mon­i­tors the bot­tom third where the oxy­gen lev­els are low­est. Sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­sity of Tas­ma­nia and CSIRO are closely in­volved, and the in­dus­try con­trib­utes mil­lions to this re­search.

What grows beneath the pens in the murky ben­thic zone is a good mea­sure of wa­ter health: dorvilleid worms eat fish waste, so an abun­dance of worms in­di­cates that too much waste is es­cap­ing from the pen, but an ab­sence of dorvilleid worms sug­gests an ab­sence of oxy­gen. The ben­thic zone is deemed “dead” when the worms dis­ap­pear and anaer­o­bic Beg­gia­toa bac­te­ria form mats across the floor. These two species were key “com­pli­ance” species in the mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram.

In early 2014, as the com­pa­nies were pre­par­ing for the cap to be lifted, the EPA re­vealed that mon­i­tor­ing was show­ing dis­solved oxy­gen lev­els were crash­ing. Huon and Pe­tuna wrote to the gov­ern­ment and pro­posed keep­ing the biomass cap set to 15,490 tonnes rather than con­tin­u­ing to scale up, but, in Septem­ber, Tas­sal re­vealed it had in­creased pro­duc­tion in an­tic­i­pa­tion that the cap would be lifted. At the cen­tre of con­cerns was Tas­sal’s Franklin lease, known as lease 266. As well as be­ing the clos­est to the World Her­itage bound­ary, lease 266 was show­ing wor­ry­ing health signs that were con­firmed in early 2015, when dorvilleid worms were found 4 kilo­me­tres around the lease, ex­tend­ing into the World Her­itage area. Shortly af­ter­wards, the Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment re­moved dorvilleid worms from their list of com­pli­ance species, sub­ject to fur­ther re­search, and in­creased the cap on stocks to 20,020 tonnes.

By 2016, the in­con­gru­ence be­tween the science and man­age­ment was clear. De­spite calls for cau­tion, the biomass cap was raised again, this time to 21,500 tonnes, in April. In Oc­to­ber, the EPA re­vealed the floor beneath lease 266 was com­pletely dead.

In Jan­uary 2017, the EPA re­duced the biomass cap to 14,000 tonnes and or­dered Tas­sal to re­move the fish from lease 266, but Tas­sal missed the March dead­line, cit­ing equip­ment de­liv­ery prob­lems and dis­rup­tive weather, and even­tu­ally re­moved the salmon in April. The com­pany also re­ported its over­all stock­ing rates would prob­a­bly ex­ceed the per­mit­ted biomass un­til the end of the year. In May, the EPA granted Tas­sal an ex­cep­tion to ex­ceed its cap and changed its al­lo­ca­tion process from the equal “tonnes per hectare” al­lo­cated to each com­pany to a “per­cent­age of cur­rent stock” that favoured Tas­sal.

Huon ar­gues that the EPA was reg­u­lat­ing the har­bour around Tas­sal’s planned har­vest sched­ule rather than sci­en­tific ad­vice and, in ef­fect, priv­i­leg­ing the short-term eco­nomic in­ter­ests of one com­pany over the in­ter­ests of not only its com­peti­tors but also the en­vi­ron­ment. With

the state au­thor­i­ties ap­par­ently back­ing Tas­sal, Frances Ben­der – who by now felt per­sona non grata after talk­ing to me­dia – took her con­cerns to court.

In his book How Did We Get into This Mess?, Ge­orge Mon­biot ob­serves that the idea of re­liev­ing busi­ness from the con­straints of so­cial jus­tice and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity can es­sen­tially equate to cor­po­rate in­ter­ests seek­ing “free­dom from democ­racy”. Ben­der’s choice to take her griev­ances to court shows that at least some of the checks and bal­ances in­her­ent in a mod­ern lib­eral democ­racy are still work­ing. In the case of state gov­ern­ments cav­ing in to the de­mands of big busi­ness, there is al­ways a higher court, which leads us through St David’s Park and across Davey Street to the Fed­eral Court, where Huon is ar­gu­ing that the Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment and/or the EPA did not com­ply with the fed­eral con­di­tions by al­low­ing salmon stock lev­els to rise to greater lev­els than Mac­quarie Har­bour could sup­port. The sec­ond Fed­eral Court chal­lenge fo­cuses on the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of the EPA’s de­ci­sion to grant Tas­sal a higher biomass al­lo­ca­tion. So, what does Ben­der hope to gain by risk­ing her rep­u­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships to pub­licly and res­o­lutely de­mand bet­ter reg­u­la­tion in Mac­quarie Har­bour?

Huon Aqua­cul­ture’s head­quar­ters are on the 13th floor of one of Ho­bart’s few tall com­mer­cial build­ings. The view of the city and the Der­went River is worth the ride in the lift. Frances Ben­der is up­beat when we meet and says that the gov­ern­ment is fi­nally lis­ten­ing after “fail­ing to keep up with the needs of the in­dus­try and the wants of the com­mu­nity”. The “face-to-face ding­dongs” with Can­berra and more lo­cally have been ex­haust­ing, but seem to be work­ing.

“The sad thing about what has hap­pened is that we needed to nearly break the in­dus­try and cre­ate a lot of angst to fix it,” she says of her de­ci­sion to pub­licly crit­i­cise the in­dus­try and go to the courts. “I think the tide has turned be­cause there is a level of re­spect from gov­ern­ment that what we have been say­ing has been com­ing from a gen­uine place and not from us try­ing to po­si­tion our­selves to a com­mer­cial ad­van­tage.”

So, this was about more than cor­ner­ing your com­pe­ti­tion? “It was never a com­mer­cial spat,” Ben­der says, de­scrib­ing the ac­cu­sa­tion as “of­fen­sive and lazy”.

“If we don’t do this right,” she con­tin­ues flatly, as though the an­swer is plainly ob­vi­ous, “we won’t have an in­dus­try, we won’t be em­ploy­ing peo­ple, and we will fuck up the econ­omy of this state.”

Ben­der is quick to talk about Huon be­ing a fam­ily busi­ness and a re­gional em­ployer. She grew up in Tas­ma­nia and says she has seen what hap­pens to re­gional com­mu­ni­ties when in­dus­tries die, as well as how com­mu­ni­ties thrive when busi­nesses suc­ceed.

“That’s the el­e­ment that never shows up on a bal­ance sheet or in the share price.”

Ben­der says that, in­stead of look­ing after jobs for the long term, the in­dus­try got it­self into “trou­ble” when the push to ex­pand started to ig­nore the science.

I sug­gest there is some cyn­i­cism about how science is used, such as jus­ti­fy­ing the con­tro­ver­sial de­vel­op­ment of salmon farm­ing in Oke­hamp­ton Bay on the state’s east coast – not to men­tion the prob­lem of any in­quiry only an­swer­ing the ques­tions asked of it – but Ben­der has lit­tle time for sug­ges­tions that in­dus­try is driv­ing science to come up with an­swers it wants to hear.

“We are all look­ing at the same science,” she in­ter­rupts, “but in the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that science there is a range of views be­cause there are dif­fer­ing risk ap­petites.”

The ap­petite for risk lies at the heart of the prob­lem, she says. Tas­sal was pre­pared to take on a riskier in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the science com­pared with Huon and Pe­tuna, and some­where in the mid­dle is a gov­ern­ment man­ag­ing these two per­spec­tives.

“The gov­ern­ment is look­ing at the in­dus­try and at the science and their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but there is no gov­ern­ment in Tas­ma­nia that wants to limit jobs and growth.”

Science was ig­nored, and as a re­sult, she con­tin­ues, the in­dus­try, as a whole, con­fused and de­val­ued the science by not re­leas­ing find­ings, or re­leas­ing part of them, or spin­ning them rather than giv­ing the whole pic­ture. As far as Ben­der is con­cerned, the in­dus­try has pushed its luck and ex­hausted its credibility.

“To pre­tend noth­ing is wrong, to hide be­hind your spin of the science or ac­cred­i­ta­tion to say there is noth­ing to see

The in­dus­try as a whole has con­fused and de­val­ued science.

here, you lose a lot of trust,” she says, ar­gu­ing that trans­parency keeps the con­spir­acy the­o­rists away.

“I know it sounds wanky for a cor­po­rate to be say­ing this, but, for any in­dus­try or busi­ness, if you don’t have that holis­tic view, the wheels will fall off some­where and you will be outed, or some­thing will go wrong in your pro­cesses,” she says. “We should be re­port­ing more ac­cu­rately, fre­quently and trans­par­ently, the good, the bad and the ugly.”

This ethic of trans­parency led Ben­der to risk show­ing the in­dus­try’s dirty laun­dry rather than counter crit­i­cism with re­as­sur­ing spin. It ap­pears to have paid off and, on pa­per, prof­its for both com­pa­nies have con­tin­ued to rise. Lo­cally the in­dus­try still ap­pears on the nose. Chefs of some of Tas­ma­nia’s bet­ter es­tab­lish­ments, such as Philippe Le­ban, the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive chef at Mona’s The Source, and na­tional gas­tro­nomic iden­ti­ties Mag­gie Beer and Chris­tine Man­field have signed the Sus­tain­able Salmon Chefs’ Char­ter that point­edly calls for “the full pen to plate story”, in­clud­ing where the fish are grown and what they’re fed. (There is a cu­ri­ous ab­sence of dis­cus­sion about fish wel­fare in the Char­ter – but, as any pesc­etar­ian or recre­ational fisher with a fish suf­fo­cat­ing in a bucket might ad­mit, fish tend to live and die in a dif­fer­ent moral uni­verse to other crea­tures.)

Lin­guist Ge­orge Lakoff, writ­ing about how we might change the way we talk about the en­vi­ron­ment, ob­serves how en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tion is so of­ten framed as per­sonal ac­tion: ride a bike, get so­lar pan­els, eat sus­tain­ably pro­duced food. The Char­ter is a good ex­am­ple of how a com­plex en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue – or how not to col­lapse an ecosys­tem – can be turned into a food safety is­sue and then into a con­ver­sa­tion about food dye.

The pink colour of salmon in the wild comes from the mol­e­cule as­tax­an­thin, found in the crus­taceans that salmon (and flamin­gos) eat. Just days after Four Cor­ners high­lighted the use of a syn­thetic form of as­tax­an­thin, Tas­sal an­nounced it would be switch­ing to a nat­u­ral source. Huon fol­lowed, de­spite Ben­der’s ob­ser­va­tion that con­sumer con­cerns about the dye were a “storm in a teacup”. Not­ing that as­tax­an­thin can be bought in health food stores along with other sup­ple­ments, she says con­cerns about the syn­thetic dye are ridicu­lous, un­less peo­ple also be­lieve that the vi­ta­min C in tablets is made from “squashed-up or­anges”.

Dis­cussing the col­lapse of a marine ecosys­tem in Mac­quarie Har­bour and the other is­sues of sus­tain­abil­ity be­set­ting the salmon in­dus­try as a hu­man health is­sue high­lights the lim­i­ta­tions of con­sumer cam­paigns as po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. Chang­ing the dye was a rel­a­tively easy de­mand to meet com­pared with some of the other chal­lenges the in­dus­try faces – like mov­ing pens off­shore to

deeper, colder wa­ter away from seals and com­mu­nity angst, not to men­tion ris­ing sea tem­per­a­tures. These chal­lenges re­quire po­lit­i­cal, as well as con­sumer, ac­tion. As Lakoff noted, it is of­ten gov­ern­men­tal ac­tion that not only out­weighs our in­di­vid­ual ef­forts but also shapes our in­di­vid­ual ac­tions. No doubt count­less in­di­vid­u­als and en­vi­ron­ment groups can ar­gue they have been us­ing ev­ery so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and le­gal open­ing avail­able to them for decades. What is in­ter­est­ing in the case of the salmon in­dus­try is that the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion is com­ing from in­dus­try it­self.

When I put this to Ben­der, she says a good fish­ing in­dus­try needs biose­cu­rity, fish health and the en­vi­ron­ment, and that these three el­e­ments are in­ter­de­pen­dent and the nec­es­sary for­mula for avoid­ing boom and bust.

Her de­ci­sion to go to court was com­mer­cial in the sense that Ben­der sees man­ag­ing the en­vi­ron­ment as a key part of her busi­ness, rather than a re­quire­ment to meet reg­u­la­tion or ap­pease con­sumer sen­ti­ment. To this end, Ben­der ar­gues for stronger sup­port for science to in­form de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

“If you don’t have a healthy en­vi­ron­ment, you don’t have a busi­ness,” she says. “You need to live by this – not just spin it.”

Huon now has an in­ter­ac­tive “sus­tain­abil­ity dash­board” on its web­site that shows the real-time data pro­duced by the mon­i­tor­ing ef­forts of the com­pa­nies and sci­en­tific or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as CSIRO and the Uni­ver­sity of Tas­ma­nia. It’s sur­pris­ingly in­for­ma­tive. A quick glance shows that the com­pany’s pro­duc­tion is down 33% from last year and its an­tibi­otic use has steadily re­duced, too. The ques­tion of whether ef­forts such as these will be in­ter­preted as trans­parency, or im­pen­e­tra­ble (and there­fore mean­ing­less) data, or vac­u­ous re­as­sur­ance re­mains to be seen. Most vis­i­tors to the Huon web­site are more in­ter­ested in recipes than sus­tain­abil­ity, Ben­der says, and the best data in the world can be man­gled at the hands of ide­o­logues and so­cial me­dia com­men­ta­tors. But the dash­board is a start to what Ben­der de­scribes as a holis­tic ap­proach to salmon farm­ing that does not hide the science. The ques­tion of how science, and sci­en­tists, can ever be truly in­de­pen­dent when tied to in­dus­try fund­ing, and the eco­nomic philoso­phies of gov­ern­ment, re­mains a moot point.

The ex­pan­sion of salmon farm­ing in Tas­ma­nia ap­pears to have verged on what Quentin Beres­ford, in his 2015 book The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd, refers to as the “crony cap­i­tal­ism” to which Tas­ma­nia seems par­tic­u­larly prone. He notes that Tas­ma­nian politi­cians have had a pro-de­vel­op­ment mind­set, es­pe­cially when it means pro­vid­ing “the boun­ties of na­ture” to busi­ness, but that the col­lapse of the state’s forestry mo­nop­oly Gunns left Tas­ma­nia at a cross­roads. Ob­serv­ing that the old guard, and the old way of do­ing pol­i­tics, is still in power, he wrote that the fu­ture for busi­ness lay in high-value, dif­fer­en­ti­ated prod­ucts – and one imag­ines lo­cally pro­duced salmon would make this list.

Beres­ford sug­gests that the fight over Gunns’ pulp mill was the last of the great po­lit­i­cal and so­cial strug­gles over the state’s en­vi­ron­ment, cul­ture and fu­ture, and con­cludes that com­mu­nity-based ac­tivism pre­vailed over gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. The Tas­ma­nian salmon in­dus­try rose dur­ing the demise of Gunns, no­tably ab­sorb­ing some of the re­gional un­em­ploy­ment left in the wake of the col­lapse of forestry. That the salmon in­dus­try ap­pears to have be­come mired in con­tro­versy sug­gests Tas­ma­nia’s po­lit­i­cal strug­gle over how to man­age ac­cess to its nat­u­ral as­sets is not yet fin­ished.

In­deed, Tas­ma­nia is at a cross­roads, and Tas­sal has been likened by some to Gunns, a com­pany that be­haved as though it was not ac­count­able to demo­cratic pro­cesses. What is most re­mark­able about Ben­der’s choice to chal­lenge her reg­u­la­tors in court is that she rep­re­sents a cor­po­rate ap­proach will­ing to turn down the short-term grab for a longer out­look. While Ben­der says the gov­ern­ment has started lis­ten­ing, it re­mains to be seen what the courts de­cide when hear­ings resume in Novem­ber.

Per­haps po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests in Tas­ma­nia are learn­ing to drop the “jobs ver­sus the en­vi­ron­ment” jin­gle from their song­book. In chal­leng­ing the old way of do­ing busi­ness, Frances Ben­der has be­gun to re­write that old song. In her words, it goes like this: “If I fuck up the en­vi­ron­ment, I don’t have a busi­ness, and if I don’t have a busi­ness, I don’t have a profit.”

In the case of the salmon in­dus­try, the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion is com­ing from in­dus­try it­self.

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